Memory & Cognition

, Volume 28, Issue 8, pp 1366-1377

First online:

On the locus of the semantic satiation effect: Evidence from event-related brain potentials

  • John KouniosAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Tufts University Email author 
  • , Sonja A. KotzAffiliated withMax Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience
  • , Phillip J. HolcombAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Tufts University Email author 


The present study sought to determine whether semantic satiation is merely a by-product of adaptation or satiation of upstream, nonsemantic perceptual processes or whether the effect can have a locus in semantic memory. This was done by measuring event-related brain potentials (ERPs) in a semantic word-detection task involving multiple presentations of primes and critical related and unrelated words in three experiments involving visual (Experiment 1) and auditory (Experiments 2A and 2B) stimuli. Primes varied in their type case (Experiment 1) or pitch (Experiment 2B) in order to discourage sensory adaptation. Prime satiation and relatedness of the primes to the critical word had interacting effects on ERP amplitude to critical words, particularly within the time-window of the N400 component. Because numerous studies have indicated a role for the N400 in semantic processing, modulation of the N400 relatedness effect by prime satiation (with little or no contribution from perceptual adaptation) suggests that semantic memory can be directly satiated, rather than the cost to semantic processing necessarily resulting from impoverishment of perceptual inputs.